Following Imogen Robertson’s fantastic talk at Plymouth University a few weeks ago on the craft of the short story, the award winning author with six solid novels under her belt agreed to chat with us and share some secrets of her success.
We covered everything from life as a writer to creature comforts. While she shed pearls of wisdom on how you can help give your submissions that much needed edge over the mountainous stacks of submissions received by agents, contest judges and publishers.
So when did you decide to pursue your writing professionally? Was it something you’d always saw yourself doing or did winning the Telegraph contest really give you a sort of epiphany moment?
I thought for a long time you needed some sort of divine permission to be a writer, so no I didn’t think I’d ever be able to make a living as a novelist. Then I started going to poetry workshops in London run by an amazing poet called Roddy Lumsden. I found myself surrounded by people who took writing seriously as a craft and discovered it was something I could get better at if I worked. I got my first short story published in Mslexia soon after. Winning the Telegraph competition came a couple of years later, and I’d just had a really good year in TV so I felt the stars must be in line. I decided not to look for more TV work and write until the money ran out. It did, of course, but luckily just as the wolves were at the door I got a two book offer from Headline.
Would ever return to television work or do you think you’ve found your true calling now?
I do miss the collaborative nature of TV work, and the excitement of putting something together. It was a lot of fun, I met some brilliant people and I would be tempted to go back to it if I had the chance. That said, I used to work brutal hours, it was often frustrating, and I’m so used to being my own boss now, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to work for anyone else again. Five years as a writer leaves you pretty much unemployable in the real world.
What first really drew you into the historical crime genre?
I stopped studying history at 14, but then rediscovered it as a subject at university when I was studying German and Russian. I found myself fascinated by social history, and the social history of the 18th century in particular. Then I’ve always loved reading crime. It has such an inherent narrative impetus and can be a great way to explore all sorts of issues and ideas. So my first story ideas were historical crime. That’s the long answer. The short answer is my mum read me lots of D.L. Sayers and Georgette Heyer when I was a kid, and I am their long lost literary love child.
What would you say were the best and worst things about aspects of being a writer?
Funnily enough, they are often the same things. The writing can sometimes leave you feeling like the king of the world, sometimes like a wet rag. Worse than that, like a wet rag used to wipe up something suspiciously greasy. Seeing your work in a bookshop can give you a massive high, but also leave you feeling very exposed. Equally, not seeing your book in the shop can make you feel like a complete failure. You need to be able to respond well to criticism without being silenced by it, and know how to spend a lot of time on your own, while also making sure you help your publishers promote your book as effectively as possible. Being a professional writer becomes quickly an exercise in how to keep your emotional balance while it seems like the whole world is trying to throw you off. Don’t get me wrong though, I love it. I might tell my husband that I wish I’d become a plumber three times a month, but I’d be devastated in some demon wiped it all out and I found myself with a wrench in my hand. One unqualified good is meeting other writers and getting to spend time with them. There is nothing better than looking round a group of fantastic novelists in the pub and thinking hell yeah, this is my tribe.
You’ve judged a lot of literary competitions, what would you say instantly attracts or disinterests you from an entry?
An opening line which intrigues and surprises me makes me very happy. A voice which sounds fresh. A story which unfolds to show it has surprising depths and subtleties. Those are the good things. I’m put off my too many typos, a story that starts with paragraphs of bland description, or any character looking at themselves in a mirror on the first page.
To be very arbitrary, what would you say were the three most important things an aspiring writer should keep in mind?
- Be professional. That means read guidelines, proof-read and only ever deliver your best possible work. Also always be civil and don’t stalk people at parties or on twitter.
2. Learn how to give and take criticism, so join a writing group and find like-minded writers who will give you honest feedback.
3. Read. Read all the time. Read everything.
Do you have any creature comforts or habits to get away from the dreaded writer’s block?
I earn my living by writing, so the need to eat is quite a good way to get through writer’s block. Sometimes the muse just descends, sometimes you need to go get her. If I get stuck with my writing, I’ve learned to recognise that as a sign that something is wrong with the work, so I go back and look at what I’ve got with my editing head on and ask myself, coldly, what is working and what isn’t. I normally find there is something that needs fixing. That said, going for a walk and letting the problem turn over in my mind often helps. Exercise often helps too, if I’ve had a run in the morning, the chances are I’ll get more work done that day. I need to exercise anyway, as three novels on a bad chair did my back a lot of harm so if I don’t do regular core work and pilates or yoga I can end up in a fair bit of pain. Other than that? Coffee. Much coffee. I’ve also got a better chair.
What makes a great story to you?
Good question, but it’s a bit like asking what makes a great view, or a great painting. I’ll give it a go though. It needs to effect me emotionally, it needs to challenge me or surprise me. It needs to have a satisfying conclusion. I need to believe it.
Who are you reading right now? Anything our readers should keep an eye out for?
I’m reading a brilliant collection of stories by Kelly Link called ‘Get in Trouble’. They are strange and fantastic, compelling, weird. They remind me of George Saunders. I also just read The Seeker by Shona Mclean which is a brilliant thriller/ mystery set during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Really masterful writing which puts you perfectly in a time and place.
Which writers would you say influenced you, moved you or focused your mind on the ability to craft interesting or beautiful words?
The poets I met through Roddy’s class have had a profound influence on me. One of them, Sarah Howe, has just won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and deservedly so. Others there – Wayne Holloway Smith, Ahren Warner, Amy Key, Mark Waldron, James Goodman and Roddy himself of course – they all explore the possibilities of language in ways I find inspirational. Then there are the poets whose work I encountered through that class – Amy Clampitt, Mark Ford, Geoffrey Hill, Brenda Shaughnessy, Kathleen Jamie, Jamie McKendrick. Poets are the frontline shock troops of language. We should all keep an eye on what they are up to.
So any upcoming projects or performances we should be keeping an eye out for?
I’m typing away at the moment and I shall keep you all posted, I promise.